Sewer Water Story


Flowing Free

A comprehensive sewer maintenance program in the fast-growing City of Olathe, Kan., makes blockages and backups exceedingly rare

By Rosalie E. Leposky

The City of Olathe, Kan., has some 116,000 residents and 390 miles of sanitary sewer pipes. Yet in 2005, the city had just three sewer backups. That enviable record is the result of the city’s decision to use the latest technology to update its aging infrastructure and rigorously maintain its entire system — even while undergoing rapid development.

Olathe, part of the Kansas City metropolitan area, is one of fastest-growing suburbs in the United States. To spare its residents and businesses the expense and extreme inconvenience of sanitary sewer backups, the city undertakes a comprehensive program of sewer inspection, root control, cleaning and rehabilitation.

At the heart of the cleaning operation are three Vactor 2110 Series combination trucks from Vactor Manufacturing Co. Each pumps 80 gpm at 2,000 psi. Operating those units cost Olathe 24 cents per foot of pipe in 2003 and 23 cents per foot in 2004. The city’s Municipal Service Department annually cleans more than one million feet of sewer lines.

The department also is developing and refining its own asset-management and operation system (AMOS) program to keep track of its manholes, valves, pumping stations and pipe, and to manage its business processes. “We maintain an aggressive sewer system maintenance program, and we are always looking for ways to improve,” says Robert J. (Rusty) Shadoin, wastewater collections supervisor. “We tried several commercially available AMOS programs, which did not meet our needs or were not easy for our field staff to use.”

Explosive Growth

Incorporated in 1857, Olathe was a small, rural community until it was engulfed by the growing Kansas City metropolitan area. The Municipal Service Department shares sewer and drainage responsibilities with the Johnson County Waste Water District. Olathe is built on a hill with a gentle grade that ranges in elevation from 830 to 1,100 feet. The city’s first sewer lines were constructed to drain the older neighborhoods.

“As the area grew, Johnson County provided services outside the city limits,” says David G. Bries, utility maintenance superintendent. “Later, Olathe grew up around those areas, but Johnson County continues to service the communities it was serving. Johnson County’s gravity system is fairly new and provides good service.

“Today, Olathe and Johnson County cooperate in providing services within the city limits. Who services which areas depends on when an area was developed, and the local topography and direction of drainage,” Bries says. The Olathe sewer system includes 17 lift stations, supported by three emergency generators, one portable generator, and three portable pumps.

During a time of explosive growth, from 1975 to 1995, the city’s sewer lines were neglected, and that led to a plague of sewer backups. Today, sewer maintenance and backup prevention are top priorities. In 2004, the Municipal Service Department, which serves 26,000 sanitary sewer customers, had just nine backups at homes and commercial and industrial facilities.

Unlike most communities, Olathe reimburses customers for the cost of cleaning their basements after a backup. “We offer $2,500 for cleanup,” says Shadoin. “Since this program began in 1995, we have paid 25 to 30 claims and have generated a lot of public goodwill. We send out claims forms and information, and customers submit receipts.”

Care for the aging

About 30 percent of Olathe’s pipes are deteriorating clay lines. “Five to 10 percent of our clay pipes have been lined with pipe-lining systems manufactured by Insituform Technologies Inc., so we have not had to replace them,” says Shadoin. “As part of our annual maintenance program we inspect our clay pipes and identify those that need to be lined. Each year we video-inspect about 100,000 feet of our pipes, during regular annual maintenance, in locations where backups have occurred, and where we have trouble getting through to clean a pipe.”

Before becoming a supervisor, Shadoin ran the city’s video operation. “He has lots of experience with our system and how to use it efficiently,” Bries says. “We send out crews to focus on an area and to be effective on a line, segment by segment. Our crews try to spend more time cleaning than traveling.”

Besides cleaning sewers, the department has an active root treatment program, using chemicals from Duke’s Root Control Inc. “We treat about 50,000 feet of sewer lines a year,” says Shadoin. “It kills roots trying to get into sewer pipes, but it doesn’t kill the tree or other plants. We inject it inside the lines where we find problems with our video camera as we clean the lines.”

Cutting costs

Investment in modern, sewer-cleaning equipment quickly paid dividends for Olathe. When Shadoin joined the department in 1989 as a maintenance worker, the city owned an aged pull-behind-jetter. In late 1990, it purchased two combination trucks, one still in the fleet as a backup.

“In the late 1990s, we investigated available equipment and decided on the Vactor 2110,” says Shadoin. “The local distributor is Key Equipment & Supply Co., 20 miles away in Kansas City, Kan. That’s close enough for quick response and repair.”

Winters in Kansas get cold. “We specified our first Vactor 2110 without a recirculator,” says Shadoin. “After it froze on us, I attended a meeting in one of the northern states and learned about recirculators. We then retrofitted our first two units and specified recirculators in our third. The trucks now work fine above 20 degrees F. In weather colder than that, we only take them out for emergencies and return them indoors as quickly as possible.”

For manholes without easy access from the street, the city pairs a Vactor unit with a gasoline-engine-driven ENSP-5 easement machine. The truck’s 600-foot hose is connected to the machine, which has its own 600-foot hose and vacuum tube. “We use our Vactor trucks as much as we can,” says Shadoin.

“We root-cut with a jet nozzle or root-cutter saw about 90 percent of the sanitary sewer lines we clean each year. The remaining lines are jet-flushed.”

New computer system

Hardworking vehicles are not the only keys to Olathe’s sewer maintenance program — technology plays a big role, too. After trying several commercially available asset-management and operation programs, the department in 2003 began developing its own AMOS program using Microsoft Access software.

“Aaron Greene, maintenance planner, has linked our asset-management system to our geographic information system (GIS) with computerized maps,” says Bries. “We use it to produce work orders and to analyze our system.

The program Greene developed integrates work orders and lines cleaned with maps to show which lines have been cleaned, and to project which lines will need to be cleaned within six months, one year or two years. The program reports on the kinds of pipes used in the lines, when they were last cleaned, which lines deserve the highest priority for inspection, and other information. The database also indicates when specific pipes were installed.

“With new lines, we video-inspect before the two-year maintenance bond ends, so the contractor will have to repair his work if problems exist,” says Bries. “We also video-inspect older lines, identify problems, and troubleshoot problem lines.”

Field deployment

The new AMOS is almost ready to deploy to the computers of Olathe’s field crews so that they can enter information from their trucks.

“We trained all our people to use the system,” Bries says. “As the system was being designed, we shared prototypes with employees and asked for their input. This solved many problems and helped to keep our forms simple, quick, easy to complete, and adaptable to many applications. A field worker should need just a few minutes per job to fill out a jobsite form.”

The city plans to purchase wireless-capable computers for field crews this year. Each computer will have a battery and will plug into a 12-volt outlet in each truck. “We will have immediate uploads from fleet computers to our central computer,” Bries says. “Work orders generated by our central computer will be immediately available to the crews in the field.”

For all the benefits of technology, it’s results that count. Olathe’s results have earned significant recognition. For 2002 through 2004, the Municipal Service Department received the Kansas Water Environment Association’s Category Three (Large Class) Collection System Operation Award.

“This award confirms what our employees do every day,” says Shadoin. “We can only receive this award for three consecutive years, so we didn’t submit for it in 2005. We’ll try again in 2006.” Watchers of the award would be wise not to bet against the City of Olathe.

Municipal Water & Sewer  2006